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On a recent international flight to Africa, a passenger pushed his seat back.

The passenger behind took offense.

One thing led to another. A disagreement. A slap to the head. Intervention by others. The ruckus led the pilot to turn the plane around, dump up to 16,000 gallons of fuel into the ocean and return to where the flight began, the Washington, D.C., area.

This led to the dispatching of two F16 fighter jets to escort the airplane in.

Lord knows how much this all cost. Sixteen thousand gallons? I wince at the fuel bill for filling up my car. Plus two fighter jets? Not to mention the inconvenience of keeping all the passengers overnight until another flight could go the next morning?

The question is not what sparked this bad behavior. We know that -- a seat recline button. But what turned it into a fire? A belligerent, self-centered passenger? Or the environment in which that passenger was flying?

Don't be too quick to answer.

Sure, this is about personal responsibility. There is no excuse for a public fight or for slapping someone's head, no matter how abruptly the rest of him lands in your lap.

But I'm betting people who have flown internationally lately -- especially in coach class -- read this story and had at least a sliver of sympathy for the guy in the rear seat.

Let's face it. The airlines have slowly, systematically created a tinderbox environment for their customers, one that gets more and more heated as time goes on.

From the moment you arrive at an airport, you are viewed as a threat, a pain and a money machine.

Your bags cost you. Every one. Thirty dollars. Seventy dollars. You want a better seat? More money. You want overhead space? More money. You want to board earlier? Eat something? Have Wi-Fi service? Money, money, money.

Meanwhile, the water you were drinking? Got to go. The shampoo bottle that exceeds 3.5 ounces? We'll take that. Security checkpoints feature half-interested workers hollering, "Remove your computers! Take off your shoes! Take everything -- everything -- out of your pockets!"

This is not a warm and fuzzy greeting. Before you reach the concourse, you've been stripped, repacked and monetarily fleeced.

Remember, you are actually paying for this privilege. And while airline fares have indeed come down over the years (if you shop around, if you have 14 days, if you stay over Saturday, etc.), there are plenty of seats that cost four figures. Even in coach. That's a lot of money to have to pay for crackers.

And then there are the seats. Airlines design planes to squeeze every last row of revenue, not comfort. Every inch is dollars to them. As a result, elevators feel more spacious than airplanes. It is simply inhumane the way passengers are squeezed both front to back and side to side for as much as 10 or 11 hours. Heaven forbid you need to get up to use the bathroom. Try doing that without knocking over a beverage, banging a passenger's knees or bumping your rump across his paperback.

Did we mention it's hot? And now -- now -- the guy in front decides to push back and claim "his space" in your chest cavity.

Does it justify an argument? No. But we don't know who was more vociferous, the space invader or the space invaded? And we don't know what was said.

What we do know is if you put people in a hotbox, they're going to sweat, and if you lock them in a ring, they're gonna swing.

And these days, airplanes feel like both.